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Posts Tagged ‘prefrontal cortex’

2 May 2011 Brain scans show how meditation calms pain

By Alan Mozes
USA Today

Dr. Giuseppe Pagnoni is a zen monk researcher who did a mediation in an MRI machine study in 2008 (By Jon Rou, Emory University)

People who routinely practice meditation may be better able to deal with pain because their brains are less focused on anticipating pain, a new British study suggests.

The finding is a potential boon to the estimated 40% of people who are unable to adequately manage their chronic pain. It is based on an analysis involving people who practice a variety of meditation formats, and experience with meditation as a whole ranged from just a few months to several decades.

Only those individuals who had engaged in a long-term commitment to meditation were found to have gained an advantage with respect to pain relative to non-meditators.

“Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis,” study author Dr. Christopher Brown, from the University of Manchester‘s School of Translational Medicine, said in a university news release.

“Recently,” he noted, “a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS (National Health Service of Great Britain) to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50% of people with chronic pain. However, scientists have only just started to look into how meditation might reduce the emotional impact of pain.”

The findings were released online recently in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Pain.

All the forms of meditation that Brown looked at included mindfulness meditation practices, which form the basis of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which has been recommended for recurrent depression since 2004.

By using a laser to induce pain, Brown and his team found that activity in certain parts of the brain seemed to dip when the study participants anticipated pain. With that observation he was able to establish that those with upwards of 35 years of meditation under their belt anticipated pain the least.

In particular, meditators also seemed to display unusual activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain that is known for regulating attention and thought processes when a person feels threatened.

“The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain,” explained Brown. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse.”

However, he added that “although we found that meditators anticipate pain less and find pain less unpleasant, it’s not clear precisely how meditation changes brain function over time to produce these effects.”

9 December 2010 Meditation Increases Attention and Changes the Brain

Posted by Martin Bohn, on Nov 30, 2010 in suite101.com
A 2007 study by neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests that meditation improves attention and may even help with attention deficit disorder.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted several studies on the effects of meditation on the brain. Being a regular meditator himself, Davidson is also a long time friend of the Dalai Lama. In this study, he was allowed to examine the brains of several Tibetan monks with a very long meditation practice and compare it to people without previous meditation experience.

The Study

In collaboration with colleagues Brefczynski-Lewis and Lutz, Davidson conducted a study that compared meditation novices to long time meditators. Both groups were asked to meditate while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) of the brain. The meditation used was a practice where one focuses intently on a stimulus and then repeatedly goes back to the object of meditation whenever the mind has wandered.

Meditation as Seen on the MRI Scan

The MRI scans revealed an increased activity in the brain regions used for paying attention and making decisions. Thus, meditation seems to train the corresponding regions and functions of the brain. It was also found that the areas of the brain connected with attention and decision-making (such as the prefrontal cortex) were more activated in long-term meditators than in the meditation novices.

Most fascinatingly, however, an altogether different picture emerged when looking only at the most experienced meditators with at least 40,000 hours of experience (equivalent to meditating five hours per day for 22 years). In that group, the same areas of the brain only showed an increased activity at the beginning of the meditation. After that, the brain activity went back to baseline. The conclusion drawn by Davidson is that these persons were able to concentrate effortlessly, something that has often been described in classic texts on mediation.

Immune to Distraction

Another distinct feature of the study was examining the reaction to distractive noises. While meditating inside the MRI, the subjects of the study were periodically blasted with disturbing noises. Among the group of experienced meditators, these noises had much less effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making. And the most experienced meditators, with over 40,000 hours of meditation experience, were hardly affected at all. “They do hear the sound” Davidson pointed out, “we can detect that in the auditory cortex, but they don’t have the emotional reaction.”

Meditation or Lifestyle?

Although he doesn’t completely rule out that these results may have something to do with the differences of lifestyle between the Buddhist monks and the ordinary American people observed in the study, Davidson doesn’t think so. Pointing out the correlation between the length of meditation practice and the amount of changes in the brain, Davidson assumes that the changes were indeed caused by meditation (rather than lifestyle factors such as isolation, eating habits or religious faith).

The Brain Can Be Changed

Another evidence for the neurological benefits of meditation comes from another study by Davidson. It shows that the ability to detect a brief visual signal that most people cannot detect is significantly improved in people who were trained in meditation over the course of three months. This study can be regarded as further evidence of the so called neuroplasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.

While psychologists have long tended to consider an adult’s capacity to pay attention as relatively fixed, these findings suggest that attention can be trained in a similar way as other abilities. Just as regular workouts improve cardiovascular health, so the systematic practice of meditation can train and improve attention.

Meditation and Hyperactivity

With a view towards a growing prevalence in hyperactivity disorder among children, Davidson regards meditation or methods derived from meditation as possible tools for dealing with hyperactivity. He stresses, however, that it is not more than a possibility as yet.

Source

Brain scans show meditation changes minds, increases attention.” Online article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s website.

Related Articles and Links

You might also be interested in the following articles on how meditation increases the size of the brain and on how meditation changes the brain. Furthermore, you can read about a related neuroscientific study by Antoine Lutz, called “Can meditation sharpen our attention?” (University of Wisconsin and Madison’s website).

18 November 2010 How Meditation Affects the Gray Matter of the Brain

David R. Hamilton, Ph.D.

I like to meditate. It makes me feel at ease and I am convinced that the sense of calm it produces helps me to handle the daily challenges of my life. There are, of course, times when I don’t keep up my daily practice of sitting quietly for 10 or 15 minutes, but these are the times in my life when I experience more stress.

Stress affects everyone. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t get stressed. But unfortunately, it plays a major role in illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, up to 90 percent of doctor visits in the U.S. may be stress related. Meditation is an antidote to stress, just as an aspirin can counter a headache. A regular practice can be a major boost to health.

It calms the nervous system. It’s good for the immune system. It’s also good for the heart; it helps produce nitric oxide (not nitrous oxide — that’s laughing gas!) in the arteries, dilating them and reducing blood pressure. It also smooths heart rhythms.

But thanks to an explosion of brain research we now know that it also physically impacts our gray matter.

One study to show this was led by scientists at the Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. Comparing MRI scans of the brains of meditators with the brains of non-meditators, they showed that meditation causes actual physical changes in the gray matter of the lower brain stem. Meditation makes the gray matter grow.

In another study, scientists Giuseppe Pagoni and Milos Cekic, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, compared the volume of gray matter in the brains of people performing Zen meditations with another group who were not meditators.

The volume of our gray matter normally reduces as we get older and this is what the scientists found in the group of non-meditators. But for the meditators, their gray matter hadn’t reduced at all with age. According to the scientists, meditation had a ‘neuroprotective’ effect on the meditators: It protected the brain from some of the effects of aging.

This mirrors some 2008 Harvard research that analyzed the genes of meditators against non-meditators. It was the first study of its kind to measure the genetic impact of meditation and found that 2,209 genes were differently activated in long-term meditation practitioners compared with non-meditators. And even looking at novice meditators, they found that 1,561 genes were affected after only eight weeks of meditation practice. They concluded that the genetic effects of meditation may have long-term physiological consequences, one of which was a slowing down of the rate of aging.

We have all heard the stories of people under extreme stress whose hair turns white in a matter of weeks. We know that stress can speed up aging. So why should it be a surprise to us that a technique to combat stress should be able to slow aging?

There are many different forms of meditation. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the impact of the Buddhist ‘Insight’ meditation on the brain. Insight meditation is a technique of moving our attention over the body or focusing on our breathing. The study found that it caused an increase in thickness of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the part just above the eyes and associated with attention.

Several areas of the brain are active when we meditate, but most pronounced is the prefrontal cortex because when we meditate we are focusing our attention on something — whether that be the body, our breathing, a word, a candle or even a spiritual ideal. When this area is active, just like a muscle being exercised, it grows.

Neuroscientists use this analogy to describe the way the brain changes. When we exercise a muscle it becomes larger and denser with muscle mass. In a similar way, when we exercise any part of the brain, which we do when we meditate, it becomes larger and denser with neural mass — gray matter. The phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity and describes how the brain actually changes throughout life.

When I attended university I learned that the brain is hardwired once we reach young adulthood. The analogy used is that when we are young, the brain is a bit like dough, which can be kneaded into various forms, but when we reach young adulthood we put the dough in the oven and it comes out with a bread crust on it. The brain is then ‘hardwired,’ we were taught.

But this analogy has since been abandoned. We now know that we never put the dough in the oven. Our gray matter is ever-changing as we experience life; as we learn, walk, run, dance, and when we concentrate, as we do when we meditate.

Our gray matter is changing until the last seconds of our life. It grows even with our last breath.

References:

For the study where meditation caused changes in the gray matter of the lower brain stem, see: P. Vestergaard-Poulsen, M. van Beek, J. Skewes, C. R. Bjarkam, M. Stubberup, J. Bertelsen, and A. Roepstorff, ‘Long-Term Meditation is Associated with Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem’, Neuroreport, 2009, 20(2), 170-174.

For the study where Zen meditation impacted gray matter, see: G. Pagoni and M. Cekic, ‘Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation’, Neurobiology of Aging, 2007, 28(10), 1623-1627.

For the study where meditation produced effects at the genetic level, see: J. A. Dusek, H. H. Otu, A. L. Wohnhueter, M. Bhasin, L. F. Zerbini, M. G., Joseph, H. Benson, and T. A. Liberman, ‘Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response’, PLoS ONE, 2008, 3(7), e2576, 1-8.

For the effect of the Buddhist Insight meditation on the prefrontal cortex, see: S. W. Lazar, C. A. Kerr, R. H. Wasserman, J. R. Craig, D. N. Greve, M. T. Treadway, M. McGarvey, B. T. Quinn, J. A. Dusek, H. Benson, S. L. Rauch, C. I. Moore, and B. Fischi, ‘Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness’, Neuroreport, 2005, 16(17), 1893-1897.

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